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“To maneuver through this formlessness”: A Conversation with sadé powell

sadé powell’s approach to poetry and performance can best be described in her own words:

I’m just sitting with all the dead things that haunt me, and I am also a dead thing that haunts me. How do I even begin to share that? How do I even begin to speak what that is, or how that feels?

It’s impossible to answer the question of how one can “even begin to speak” or write about an experience without first accepting that one will be mistaken, misread, and misunderstood. But sadé powell goes beyond acceptance. She chooses to interrogate the very desire to understand and be understood through art, and finds creative and political potential in the gaps between language and the world.

The following interview was conducted by Ugly Duckling Presse apprentice Pearl Friedland. Friedland and powell discuss illegibility, denaturalizing space and time, and “the typewriter as a physical talisman.”

sadé powell is a native New Yorker and antidisciplinary poet, exploring fugitivity, legibility, and interobjectivity through visual and concrete poetry. Inspired by her upbringing, she uses the sonic, kinesthetic, and linguistic elements of her 1940s mechanical typewriter to experiment with dissemblance as proximity and relation to otherwise potentialities. sadé holds a MA in performance studies at NYU Tisch. Her work can be found in Kolaj Magazine and Tiny Spoon.

— Stella-Ann Harris, Air/Light Editorial Assistant

Pearl Friedland: In wordtomydead, words layer on top of words to create a psychedelic kaleidoscope; the lack of space between words creates countless possibilities. As a reader, I would often sit with a phrase and try to decode it, to create meaning. Even then, a part of me remained in doubt. How is this uncertainty connected to what you call “dissemblance as black feminist poethics”?

sadé powell: The way I came to know legibility is through my history and background as an advocate and an organizer. I was living in Oakland and I wanted to be there to connect to my blackness in a way that was rooted in revolutionary politics and this strong organizing history.

I kept having issues with the work that I was doing. In these roles, you end up fighting for representation and rights so that other folks can be legible in systems that are designed to shun them. These were systems I did not believe in, that I did not have faith in, that I did not care if I was legible within. Why were we leaning on them? They kept giving us crumbs. Representation doesn’t teach us how to actually live otherwise: how to be radical, how to cultivate community care that isn’t state-sanctioned or dependent on the martyrdom of black femme folks. But how do you talk about those things without being villainized as someone who’s apathetic, nihilistic or, dare I say, afro-pessimistic?

I don’t really care to be understood in a way that could be categorized. The more legible we are, the more it absorbs us as fodder for the system, versus us saying, Those are your labels for who I am, and I can call myself whatever the fuck I want to call myself, I can be whatever the fuck I want to be. 

In short, I think that legibility is not enough, and maybe illegibility isn’t either. The whole point of celebrating illegibility is to say that there’s meaning and life and things beyond me that I could never express or fully know. The only reason why I’m able to gesture towards that is partly because of my positionality in the world. 

Being illegible isn’t about being cool. It’s about being vulnerable, and saying, I don’t know shit, I just feel a bunch of things. I’m just present with a lot of shit. I’m just carrying a lot. And I see that other people are too and what is a way that I can be easy with myself and own myself and then in turn also create space for others. 

PF: It’s also hypocritical of the state to demand its subjects to be legible, to distill them into this deeply categorizable position, because the language of the state is deeply illegible. The bills that are written make no sense. They constantly contradict themselves and are filled with language that only a few can understand; they force identity and boxes onto us so they can categorize and control.

sp: And we happily accept that, in the name of order. For a crumb of resources.

Nothing about nature is orderly. Whatever is orderly is just because of the rhythms we see as such—day and night, seasons. I think about that every year, ever since I was a kid. Every year that goes by, I’m thinking, how do I know it’s been a year? What’s been told to me is that I have to track time based on the day and the season, perceptible patterns. What about the imperceptible? What if years are longer than one another? What if one year is like 550 days and one year is 30 days? Who comes up with this? How am I just supposed to yield and trust?

That’s the thing, too, about whatever’s legible. You’re asking me to trust things that are created by a species of animal, a narcissistic animal. The state makes everything feel real so that people have something to defer to. If I believe in the system, I don’t actually need to have agency over my life and my decisions. I don’t actually have to think too much about what’s going on in other parts of the world, let alone in my building or on my block. If I believe in the system, I don’t really have to sit with the trauma of what happened to me as a child. I don’t necessarily have to forgive people. If I believe in the system, I don’t even need to learn how to love or to be kind, to be genuine or to heal.

I see legibility as something that is so severely humanistic, yet at the same time, so anti whatever species that we are.

PF: So legibility is anti-nature?

sp: [laughs] It is anti-nature.

PF: What are ways in which people can embrace their illegibility?

sp: People need time and space to ask themselves the hard questions of, Why do I even believe what I believe? To investigate and experiment with how meaning comes to them. How do they come to know any thing as anything?

In my time working with Fred [Moten]…I don’t want to pigeonhole him or be reductive, but he is interested in interrogating the empty, the “ante” and the anti, the something that is besides something. In favor of the black things that gesture towards something else. For something that’s brushing up against.

I guess the thing with anti is that you’re either this or that. You’re kind of affirming more binary type thinking. At the same time, what is wrong with saying, I know what I’m not? I think that’s such a generous place to be, because we get told who we are before we know who we are.

The deconditioning and the liminal delinking from everything requires understanding what does not work—understanding what may not work for you or what’s not quite right for you. And then it’s like, Okay, well, how do I then work with what I know doesn’t fit me?

That’s a scary place to be, because now that I know that, where do I find examples of performances, or behaviors, or experiments that allow me to begin to find and define who I am in the world?

Growing up here in New York, I felt so weak about having an interiority that just wanted to play and be soft and be loved and be cared for. I felt so ashamed about that, like I should be seeking inner strength and fortitude to protect me from the incessant external assaults.

I think that’s what the dissemblance is for me: it’s having a safe space inside of me where the little girl can play and experiment and be free, and asks questions, and is herself. I’m safekeeping this avatar. I’m safekeeping this part of me, so that I have freedom within myself, knowing that every day the performances that I do will be overdetermined.

I really find that in deploying the dissemblance and illegibility as methods, as mediums, I’m trying to do some type of community care. One that doesn’t involve a reliance on the state to tell me that I’m worthy.

PF: You wrote wordtomydead on your typewriter. Why the typewriter? How does it speak to legibility and performance?

sp: Using the typewriter is painful. It’s actually painful to contort the pages and to twist the dial and to type while twisting and to overlap text. A lot of the time I’m like Spiegel over the typewriter trying to get some of these things happening: these corners right, for example.

While I was getting my master’s, I was trying to study other black women using typewriters. When you have that type of relation with something, it’s so extractive. It’s frustrating because you’re like, I need to find the shit that’s going to prove my point. 

There were no black women who created typewriter art that I came across in the archive. I was like, That can’t be true. Especially when a lot of typewriters were produced in Detroit—many of those factory workers were black men and women. So you cannot tell me that there’s not one black person who had a fucking typewriter and played with it.

I get excited knowing there’s possibilities and potentialities and ways of life for black folks that I probably would never experience. That speculation is a lovelier place to be, rather than sitting with a photo of a young black enslaved girl in the archive, who was clearly dehumanized, raped, and ripped of everything. But looking at her countenance or practicing Tina Campt’s method of listening to images—you learn other things about this person in the photo. You have that moment of, Oh, I just know this thing is a fact, even though there’s no proof. And that also feels culturally relevant in terms of how black people maneuver truth, or conjure up truth. Everything is off of a feeling and faith for black Americans.

It brings me back to the haptics of the typewriter: you have this heavy metal mechanical 1940s typewriter. Its weight feels comparable to some of the shit that I carry around. Hitting the keys feels like I’m at a boxing gym punching shit. The sound is the affirmation that shit is being alchemized. It’s almost as if you’re playing a lottery game. It’s a crazy way to get dopamine that’s not scrolling through a screen, the sound of the keys and then the platen sliding. When you get to the edge of the page that lets you know that you’ve reached the margin, you’re done with this line. You did it, you made an imprint, you made the impression.

I like the typewriter as my feminist tool, because of the way that it’s unforgiving to mistakes. Where there’s mistakes, you trip up, everything’s murky. You want to throw it away, but you can’t. You have to stick with the page.

PF: The process seems to mirror the difficulty of trying to access our interiority. The fact that we’ll never be legible, that we are illegible.

sp: Even to ourselves we are illegible. We don’t know shit about nature, we don’t know shit about space. We don’t know shit about the ocean. Where I come from, we say, You don’t know nothing about nothing. I don’t want to, and I don’t care to pretend anymore that I’m the expert, that I know the law, the policies that are gonna make it okay, that I know the things that are going to make it okay for people. I don’t know that. I feel like there’s this burden that black femme people have.

Everyone’s trying to maneuver through this formlessness. I think it’s about creating space for people to just to show up as they are and to confront the uncomfortability of, Maybe I don’t know who I am. Maybe I don’t know shit about shit. How is that true ego? What is generous about that? What is on the other side of that? What kind of unfurling could that lead me down?

I actually want people to feel uncomfortable. There’s such a strong fear of deviating from what is. We’ve been shown through examples like Assata Shakur and Breonna Taylor what happens when you even suggest some things out loud. What will happen to your body, what the state can do to your body.

PF: What’s it like performing this work? What’s it like performing concrete poetry?

sp: It’s a bit of a mindfuck, because most poetry readings don’t have the frills of a technological setup, like a projection, or a DJ table, or the equipment to experiment. Even if you have legible poems, the expectation is that all you need is a mic.

The Poetry Project reading was the only reading I’ve had where I could actually even attempt to perform the affects and gather the multiplicity that I’m communicating in this chapbook. The way I like to do it is to have the sounds from my typewriter sessions as an ambient background, along with a podcast. In the audio you might hear the city streets, you might hear my dog barking, or a podcast I’m listening to in the background. Then, at the same time, I’ll transpose those sounds with the actual recordings of the voices of the people that I’m conjuring here in the work, like my mom, my sisters, my friends, my loved ones, these conversations that we have as a part of quotidian life.

It’s like how when you’re talking to a friend or someone you come across, and they’ll say something, and you’re like, Damn, that really stuck with me, and for them it’s nothing, but for you, it becomes this line, this theme, this anchor in your day-to-day—for some time, you’re still holding on to it.

Even with me sharing the most intimate parts of my life, there’s still so much you don’t know, that evades capture. You sat with these pages and you read what you could. That is the gift for us both.

Pearl Friedland is another poet and artist living in the unceded lands of the Lenapehoking (Brooklyn). She enjoys cooking for her community, taking care of her cats Kabuki and Frankie, and loafing in the park on a sunny day. Her writerly interests include how we make meaning from relation and the inner workings of our conscious thought. Her work has appeared in "Spectra Poets" and "Hot Pocket Mag."

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